Maybe it's a secret fantasy of girl-on-girl action that makes Ed Klein obsess about Sen. Hillary Clinton's supposed lesbian ethos in his new book "The Truth About Hillary." It's hard to know what else he has to draw on. Yelling "lesbian" at powerful heterosexual women has always been the pathetic projection of the menaced male, but it's especially baffling in Klein's case. As the former editor of the New York Times Magazine, with some bestsellers behind him, Klein used to be a workmanlike scribe with glamour aspirations when he was flat-footing around in the Jackie O crypto-sphere. He's not the usual sniper in the Republican stage army, which is perhaps why such paid-up members as the New York Post's John Podhoretz have elected to play smart and trash the book, too. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that misogyny is a sure boomerang.
In New York, "The Truth About Hillary" is having the unintended result of inspiring female solidarity. At a fancy all-girls lunch party on Fifth Avenue on Tuesday for, in Kleinspeak, the Powerful Network of Women who control the dinner access in Manhattan, "Ed Slime" was a withering topic of conversation, which seems to have been good news for his Amazon listing.
Every time Klein describes anyone female in Hillary Clinton's circle, you hear the clump clump clump of stereotype-lesbian footwear. Melanne Verveer, her White House East Wing chief of staff, is "dark haired and mannish-looking." Susan Thomases has "frizzy salt-and-pepper hair, frumpy clothes, down-at-the-heel shoes and an expletive-laden vocabulary." Evelyn Lieberman, the White House deputy chief of staff, is "short, a little overweight with grayish hair," while the orientation of the Hillary-driven picks for Cabinet appointments, Donna Shalala and Janet Reno, "are shrouded in deep ambiguity" (not).
Wellesley in the late '60s, instead of being the uptight, white-gloves institution that other alumnae remember, is depicted as some kind of Sapphic coven of radical feminists, with the buzz cut of Hillary's friend Nancy Wanderer, who did come out two decades after Wellesley, as Exhibit A. Hillary's gag -- at the 25th-anniversary Wellesley class reunion she hostessed at the White House -- that maybe she, too, should get a crop like Nancy's is laid on by Klein as a hint of wishful thinking, instead of what the remark obviously was: a clear tease off the media's obsession with her hair.
Klein's book, published this week, has been seen as an opening shot in the 2008 campaign because it was written for Penguin's new right-wing imprint Sentinel, but this doesn't seem in character for Klein. In my experience when he wrote for me at Vanity Fair, he was motivated only by success. In those days I appreciated his zesty pursuit of headline stories, even when he was totally unqualified to write them. A Klein hazard, however, was a Clouseau-like imperviousness to social temperature. I am afraid it was I who first assigned him to write a cover story about Jackie O in 1989 on the strength of his avowed friendship with the former first lady. Given her closely guarded privacy, it surprised me when Klein reported that Mrs. Onassis was "perfectly amenable" to his writing the piece. "What did she say when you called her?" I asked. "She said, 'Oh Ed, give me a break,' " he replied.
At the Fifth Avenue girls' lunch, the question most asked was: At what point is a successful woman permitted to move on? If George W. Bush can be born again and be absolved for his dopey frat-boy past and eat his National Guard records, when does Hillary get to slough off the ancient scaly legends of her relationship with Bill and the hoary old hide-and-seek of her Rose Law Firm files? Is there a statute of limitations on how long we can go on pondering if the Clintons do or don't have a "real marriage," whatever that may be? Now that Hillary has proved such a creditable senator in her own right, will there ever come a time when she doesn't have to prove that her pain over her husband's infidelities was "authentic"?
There is something so passe about bio-porn, even in the service of political gut-shooting. When Klein makes a three-page laundry list of all the many heinous crimes Hillary is supposed to have committed in her manic grasp for power, it leaves you instead with nostalgia for that raffish old world when White House duplicities were centered on the travel office instead of weapons of mass destruction, and cover-ups were about sex instead of war.
It won't hurt Hillary, of course, because she is now the "Cinderella Man" of American politics. Indeed, you could argue that a serial trashing is the new must-have requirement on the political resume. Perhaps today, given the ADD American psyche, the best vaccine for a reputation is overexposed "scandal." The fresh faces of new candidates -- and even some old ones -- harbor scary surprises. Sen. John Kerry's dithering, unpracticed response to the Swift boat charges in the last election showed a hopeless lack of suppleness in the face of character assassination.
What Klein doesn't understand is that Hillary's success today depends not on an ability to be aggressively masculine, but on the exact opposite. That black pantsuit is the power woman's burqa -- a disguise for screening out, not extinguishing, distracting gender. All the bipartisan charm she's been wielding -- the assiduous reassuring of schoolboy senatorial egos, the tireless disarmament campaign of sharing the limelight -- comes right out of the female playbook of flattery and compromise. When she plays the attack dog, as she did at a New York fundraiser two weeks ago, it's actually a rare but welcome flash of after-dinner dominatrix. The tone of Ed Klein's book epitomizes the pouting of all the guys she has ever defeated in a contest of intellect. In the Senate Hillary has grown, and, in a way, the public has grown with her. We have absorbed her tribulations. And whether or not we want to vote for her, we share her desire to leave them behind.
(c)2005, Tina Brown